Three New Ways to Use Stress, Pressure, and Anxiety to Your Advantage

Be a Happy Test-Taker or Daunting-Task-Tackler with these strategies

There seem to be two kinds of test-takers these days: those who excel, and those who get crushed. It starts as children and goes on into young adulthood—were you comfortable taking the SATs? Then even as an adult, our response to this kind of competitive pressure affects our work and social lives. Our responses come from a variety of factors: genetics, hormones, experiences, background, and skills.

Given your response to competitive pressure, how can you succeed in the face of a challenge? Here are three new ways to approach tasks and tackle them. 

1. Interpret anxiety as energizing.

In a study of amateur and professional athletes, the major difference in performance comes down to how they interpret their anxiety. Professional athletes tend to view stress as energizing—and it helps them focus.

According to this New York Times article, a similar mental shift can also help students in test-taking situations—or any challenge. Jeremy Jamieson, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Rochester, tested GRE candidates, giving half of them a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” And the note continued to advise if students felt anxious, “you shouldn’t feel concerned … simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”

On a practice test, this group scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group. Separately, the group took the actual GRE and reported their scores back to Jamieson. The group that was taught to think of stress as beneficial scored 65 points higher than the controls!

2. Be a Warrior.

According to many schools of thought, we are all Warriors (fast-acting dopamine clearers) or Worriers (slow-acting dopamine clearers). There are benefits to both, and most people have a mix of the enzymes and are somewhere in between the Warriors and the Worriers. Warriors are naturally better suited for single-stakes testing, but Worriers can become better over time.

Worriers may have turned their anxiety into a habit, a state they believe they are in that has little to do with their preparedness or confidence. It takes practice to use anxiety as a tool to succeed, but training, preparation, and repetition can defuse the Worrier’s tendencies.

3. Enter the test in a Challenge State.

Stand with your shoulders back, chest open, putting weight on your toes. This stance helps send hormones that activate the brain’s reward centers and suppress the fear networks, putting you in an excited state to start the test. In this kind of Challenge State, decision making becomes automatic. The same New York Times article quotes Jamieson saying in frustration, “When people say, ‘I’m stressed out,’ it means, ‘I’m not doing well.’ It doesn’t mean, ‘I’m excited—I have increased oxygenated blood going to my brain.” 

Use your increased oxygenated blood to increase your focus and decisiveness, and you can use stress, pressure, and anxiety all to your advantage.

Category: Psych


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